Hillary Clinton held a town meeting in Salem, N.H., on the December evening after Donald Trump made nearly everybody crazy by proposing that Muslims be barred from entering the U.S. The event was well attended and enthusiastic. Grandmothers—at least, women of a grandmotherly age—stood on their chairs, cheered and took pictures of the candidate. At a moment when Republican pyrotechnics get almost all the media attention, it is important to remember that Clinton’s core constituency is as passionate as Trump’s. But very different.
After criticizing Trump briefly, with a stray shot at Marco Rubio, Clinton went straight to questions. Dozens were asked. But there was not a single one about radical Islamic terrorism, not a single one about the need to rethink national security in an era when the jihadis have switched tactics and are attacking low-security targets—theaters and restaurants in Paris, Christmas parties in San Bernardino.
What were the questions about? Genetically modified food. Climate change. Gun control. Whether ExxonMobil suppressed information about carbon pollution. Voting rights. Mental health. Student loans. Immigration (family preservation, not border control). Preserving Social Security and Medicare. Taking care of veterans (with the assumption that veterans are victims of the military-industrial complex).
Now, some of these are important issues. But the Democrats’ unwillingness to think, or ask, about the single most immediate threat to our country was stunning—or perhaps, all too predictable. There is as little nuanced thought about national security among left-liberal Democrats as there is about border control among Trump supporters.
Several times Clinton tried to steer her answers toward the topic, but the crowd resisted. And it occurred to me that Clinton might actually be taking a risk with the Democratic base when she talks about national security, which she has been doing quite a bit recently. She has given three meaty speeches since the Paris attacks—tough, detailed proposals for fighting ISIS, keeping the heat on Iran and protecting the homeland. In sum, they represent a more comprehensive effort to deal with these issues than attempted by all the Republican candidates combined, although Jeb Bush comes close and—he’ll hate me for saying this—his positions on these issues aren’t all that different from hers.
Clinton’s speeches have been partisan. “Shallow slogans don’t add up to a strategy,” she said at the University of Minnesota on the afternoon of the Republicans’ Las Vegas debate. “Promising to carpet bomb until the desert glows doesn’t make you sound strong. It makes you sound like you’re in over your head.” And she’s been quick to excoriate the Republicans for their failure to include gun-control measures in their antiterrorist rants: “If you’re too dangerous to fly, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun, period.”
But the speeches are also studded with passages that would make Bernie Sanders supporters cringe. She favors embedding U.S. troops with the Iraqi army. She favors an expanded target set in the air war. She has gone where no Republican has ventured in criticizing the Saudis, who, she told the Council on Foreign Relations, “need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations, as well as the schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path to radicalization.”
And she’s been tough on Iran too. “There will be consequences for even small violations” to the nuclear deal, she told a Brookings Institution audience. “Our approach must be distrust and verify.” Indeed, she slipped and said she wouldn’t rule out a “nuclear” response if Iran violated the deal. Justice Stephen Breyer, sitting in the audience, corrected her: “a military response,” he suggested, using the appropriate term of art; Clinton quickly redacted herself.
This is not to say that Clinton has been running a fabulous campaign. In some ways, she’s been as cowardly on domestic policy as she’s been bold on national defense, caving to her party’s special interests on trade, education and government reform. And she did make some serious foreign policy mistakes as Secretary of State, including her support for regime change in Libya. But given the dovish cast of her party, Clinton’s persistent, and intelligent, speeches on national security have been the equivalent of her husband’s Sister Souljah moment in 1992—a direct challenge to the party’s base. And the Republicans, who seem to think that merely mentioning Clinton’s name is enough to discredit any policy she favors, may be in for a general-election surprise.